Can the European Union tackle corruption and state capture?

While the EU is far from a silver bullet, Dimitar Bechev argues that it is still a badly-needed ally in strengthening the rule of law in the Balkans. But for enlargement to make good on its original promise, the EU should take a robust stance and call out egregious cases of corruption. 

European Union Balloons, by Jonatan Svensson Glad (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When it set to enlarge in the 1990s, the EU brought forward three promises to Eastern Europe. First, delivering prosperity which would narrow the gap with the advanced countries in the West. Second, cementing peace and stability in a historically volatile part of the Old Continent at a time when Yugoslavia went down in flames. Third, Europe was all about good governance and the rule of law. Post-communist societies needed external help and encouragement to consolidate independent judiciaries, establish robust anti-corruption agencies, depoliticize and upgrade the civil service, foster a vibrant NGO scene and media capable of holding the powers to be to account.

When the EU enlarged in 2004, the prevailing sentiment was that this third goal had been fulfilled. Central Europe (Slovenia included) and the Baltics met all the benchmarks. Romania and Bulgaria, on the other hand, were an entirely different kettle of fish. While they did make it into the Union in 2007, the accession treaties empowered the European Commission to monitor judicial reforms and issue regular reports, as during the pre-accession period. The so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) meant to give the EU leverage to take care of “unfinished business”.

In parallel, lessons learned from the Romanian and Bulgarian case fed into the design of accession negotiations with the Western Balkans: Croatia and, later on, Montenegro and Serbia. The much-discussed Chapters 23 and 24 (addressing the judiciary and the rule of law) offered a means to maximize pressure on governments to meet EU-set benchmarks in rooting out corruption in high places, not a trivial goal given the difficult legacy bearing on former Yugoslav republics as well as on Albania.

What has happened in the 15-odd years since? The record is at best chequered. The former star pupils have turned into the EU’s worst headache. Back in the day, one could simply write off Bulgaria or Romania as the outliers. But when Hungary and Poland have become textbook examples of state capture through dismantling the very checks and balances that make democracy worthy of its name and ensure transparency and accountability of decision making, it is painfully clear that the vision of Europeanization is in dire straits.

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Strengthening the rule of law in the Western Balkans: Why should the EU care?

One of the main conditions set by the EU for aspiring members in the Western Balkans is to strengthen the rule of law, but the success of these efforts has so far been relatively limited. Drawing on a new study, Tena Prelec (Doctoral Researcher, University of Sussex) explains some of the major challenges that exist in the region and outlines why promoting the rule of law should continue to be viewed as a key priority for the EU.

Many of the most pressing rule-of-law related issues are deeply embedded in the political, economic and social structure of the countries of the Western Balkans. Tackling them is no easy matter and requires multi-faceted solutions: the coveted trophy of fostering better governance cannot be achieved within a few months’ time, nor even in a five-year period (such as the length of an EC mandate). Instead, it needs a strategy that will skirt short-term victories in favour of long-term gains, while providing clear benchmarks, fair reward and punishment, and the use of uncompromising language in calling out abuses. The Balkans in Europe Policy Group study “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution Against Particularism” sets out a wholesome strategy addressing the matter from an institutional, political and sociological perspective.

But, why should EU member states be interested in this topic? From a practical standpoint, it is understandable that European Union leaders and officials are sometimes reluctant to prioritise painstaking work that would only bear fruit in the long run, preferring to focus on maintaining stability (or the appearance thereof) and on more achievable successes. On top of the clear benefits for the Western Balkan countries, however, there are a number of pragmatic reasons – next to a host of loftier ones – why the European Commission, and indeed all the member states of the European Union (including the ‘outgoing’ UK), should be interested in ensuring that a comprehensive revolution against state capture and corruption takes place in EU accession countries.

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